In recent weeks the second reading at Mass has come from the Letter to the Colossians.
This Sunday we plunge into a sequence of readings from the Letter to the Hebrews, beginning at chapter 11 (readings from Chapters 2-10 came at the end of the last liturgical year). The readings focus on faith, living faithfully and the life of the kingdom.
This year, though, we barely get our toes wet in the sequence of readings from Hebrews before it is interrupted by next week’s sequence of readings for the Assumption of Our Lady, transferred from the 15th August to the 14th, the preceding Sunday.
But this week, Hebrews…
Only faith can guarantee the blessings that we hope for, or prove the existence of the realities that at present remain unseen. It was for faith that our ancestors were commended.
It was by faith that Abraham obeyed the call to set out for a country that was the inheritance given to him and his descendants, and that he set out without knowing where he was going. By faith he arrived, as a foreigner, in the Promised Land, and lived there as if in a strange country, with Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. They lived there in tents while he looked forward to a city founded, designed and built by God.
It was equally by faith that Sarah, in spite of being past the age, was made able to conceive, because she believed that he who had made the promise would be faithful to it. Because of this, there came from one man, and one who was already as good as dead himself, more descendants than could be counted, as many as the stars of heaven or the grains of sand on the seashore.
All these died in faith, before receiving any of the things that had been promised, but they saw them in the far distance and welcomed them, recognising that they were only strangers and nomads on earth. People who use such terms about themselves make it quite plain that they are in search of their real homeland. They can hardly have meant the country they came from, since they had the opportunity to go back to it; but in fact they were longing for a better homeland, their heavenly homeland. That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God, since he has founded the city for them.
It was by faith that Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He offered to sacrifice his only son even though the promises had been made to him and he had been told: It is through Isaac that your name will be carried on. He was confident that God had the power even to raise the dead; and so, figuratively speaking, he was given back Isaac from the dead.
The Letter to the Hebrews is often supposed to have been written to convert Jews, perhaps priests. Certainly, in comparison to some other writings of the New Testament, Hebrews emphasises a continuity between Judaism and Christianity. What is new is fulfilment and completion of the ‘old’, rather than a replacement of it.
And in this week’s passage, the fulfilment of faith in Christ and in the Church is seen to have firm foundations in the Patriarch Abraham and Matriarch Sarah. The faith has been handed on and now it is our responsibility to live it well so as to hand it on entire for those who follow after…
Abraham, Our Father in Faith. Figure by Sean Rice in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Liverpool. (c) 2016, Allen Morris.